On the season premiere of ''America's Next Top Model,'' we meet 13 new girls and see our hostess bend over for a fake bikini wax

By Michael Slezak
Updated September 20, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Jim DeYonker

”Top Model” season premiere: Tyra’s new low

This afternoon at work, I got talking with a friend about our inexplicable mutual excitement over tonight’s premiere of America’s Next Top Model, cycle 9. ”It’s the same damn thing every season. How is it that we haven’t lost interest yet?” she asked, leaving me as expressionless and confused as a Top Model winner shooting a ”My Life as a Cover Girl” ad.

It was a fair question, to be sure, but an almost impossible one to answer, considering I’ve been living a Tyra-free lifestyle since last May, when the cycle 8 crown went to Jaslene, the ”cha cha diva.” (Fun fact: Jaslene’s nickname loosely translates from Spanish to English as ”looks like drag queen.”) Twenty minutes into tonight’s show, though, the old feelings came flooding back, and I remembered why Top Model remains essential viewing despite its threadbare formula.

Seriously, without Top Model, how would I know there are grown women with names like Ambreal and Spontaniouse (spon-tay-nee-OOSE?) living among us? Without Top Model, where would I learn the nuances that separate plus-size models from real-size models, and real-size models from regular runway models? And without Top Model, how would I ever know the proper positioning for getting a bikini wax?

Oh, yeah, I went there. Don’t think for a second I was going to skip the heinoustry just because you woke up this morning fully convinced that image of Tyra Banks, clad in a flimsy white sundress, crouched on all fours on a table, allowing bubbly pixie Janet to perform what was dubbed a ”simulated kitty-cat wax,” was all part of some uncomfortable dream you’d never even discuss with your therapist.

It happened. It was not right. And no, I am not referring to the ”it” that Janet spoke of in the most alarming sound bite of this young TV season: ”You gotta get the crack up, you gotta spread the cheeks, and just make sure it’s available.” It. Literally.

But it — that is to say, the entire Janet-Tyra pas de deux, right down to the enthusiastic booty smack — also served notice that Tyra will continue to strike whatever pose it takes to keep us entertained, keep Top Model as The CW’s MVP, and keep the ad dollars flowing into her ”real-size” pockets.

What I’d really love to know, though, is whether Tyra is completely in on the joke, or if (more likely) she wavers between poking fun at herself and believing that the public at large is mere moments away from discovering she’s more than a model/TV host and is also a world-class singer/actress/comedienne/self-help guru/prophet. Take that song-and-dance routine where Tyra, clad in a feathered headdress, crooned an awful ditty about how her ”models sail over the ocean.” Somehow the whole thing dragged on about 30 seconds past its punchline, veering a little too close to a misdirected audition tape for a summer 2008 gig as Velma Kelly in Chicago.

But then again, Tyra can afford to play the fool, since (a) she correctly utilized and pronounced ”‘je ne sais quoi” on two occasions tonight (bets that it was the featured phrase on her Cool Foreign Expressions flip calendar at some point this summer?) and (b) so many of the Top Model wannabes are so exceedingly dumb. Brace yourselves, people! Here’s Ambreal declaring that walking ”is one of my best fortes!” There’s Sabrina boasting, ”I have talent that is just extraordinaire!” And then there’s Chantal explaining why she’s the front-runner in the competition: ”I think that I have something that no other girl does. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something.” You be sure to get back to us when the epiphany strikes, Chantal! (And don’t worry — an epiphany can’t hurt you.)

But let’s be honest: America’s Next Top Model isn’t about being the smartest girl in the room. In fact, to explain the real criteria for the competition, let’s cut to Tyra’s end-of-episode explanation: ”America’s Next Top Model is not just about being pretty and taking pretty pictures, but about being role models.”

Aha! So that explains why self-described bitches Bianca, Ebony, and Jenah all made the final 13, while Marvita, the sweet albeit tough cookie who’s overcome homelessness, a horrific childhood, and a haircut stolen from Grace Jones circa 1982, got left on that poolside platform, which I kept expecting would turn into a cruel dunking-booth device after the lucky 13 advanced to the victors’ area. How nice, seeing that Marvita never really stood a chance, that Tyra pressed her for details about her fairly self-explanatory comment that ”a lot of bad people have done a lot of bad things to me.” Because while, yes, it had to be emotionally devastating for this young woman to reveal on national television that she’d been the victim of rape and molestation, it definitely raised the emotional stakes for the elimination ceremony, so it wasn’t exploitative or cruel in the end. Right, Tyra?

But lest I spend this entire column kvetching, how about some prognosticating? I’m going to go out on a limb and predict this season’s final four based on only an hour’s worth of evidence — and I’d like all of you to do the same in the comments section below. (Whoever nails it can boast about it on the TV Watch boards come December.)

NEXT: Slezak’s fearless forecast!

To pick my final four, I’m going to start by eliminating the not-quite-plus-size Sarah, because she’s too hard for the panel to label, and the panel does not like to be confused. Also, her accordion-straw-wrapper nasal trick makes her a bad role model.

Next, we can eliminate Ebony and Heather, because their story arcs already seem too obvious. Ebony made the fatal mistake of going from hellion with a $500 weave to sympathetic sob sister whose mom was a crack addict in the course of one episode. In other words, her ”journey” was over before it began. Heather, meanwhile, who looks like a gorgeous cross between Liv Tyler and the chick who climbs out of the TV set in The Ring, has Asperger’s syndrome, which will seem fascinating to Nigel, Twiggy, and Tyra until it doesn’t. (Also, her ”hey, pretty lady — and Tyra” comment will not be forgotten.) Miss Jay, I’m guessing, won’t get on board with Heather, either, because he won’t be able to pronounce ”Asperger’s,” and because it’s ultimately not ”fierce” to have it. (Side rant: Am I alone in the feeling that there was enough of flubber-mouthed, self-amused Miss Jay in tonight’s episode to last the entire season?)

On the flip side, Kimberly and Saleisha (who I’d say is possibly the most naturally beautiful woman ever to appear on this show) seem far too normal and well adjusted to be good Top Model ”characters.” But then again, seeing that the latter is a former graduate of Tyra’s T-Zone camp, what else would you expect? I’m also going to bump Chantal from consideration because she described herself as a ”perfect little Southern Barbie doll,” and that kind of blew her chances right there. And also she looks a little more like my niece’s busted-up old Barbie than a new one right out of the box. Come on! It’s true!

Finally, I caught glimpses of hatred in Tyra’s eyes tonight when she dealt with Jenah, Ambreal, and Mila. Jenah received ”the look” when she bragged, ”I am beautiful. And I’m smart. I know stuff. I read books. I can play beer pong. I party with guys.” Ambreal got it when she tried to out-runway Tyra during her initial panel session. And Mila caught it when she refused to admit she’d felt vulnerable or cried at any point in her completely charmed life. (Cut to Tyra’s cycle 9 to-do list: ”Send that grinning blond beast into an emotional tailspin.”)

That leaves me wagering on a final four of Bianca, Victoria, Lisa, and Janet. Yes, Bianca has no eyebrows, but her rant about Ebony’s pricey weave, and its relation to her own $25 hair, was the episode’s comedic pinnacle. Yale student Victoria (who also has eyebrow issues) seems poised to play the role of the finalist whose motivations are suspect, since she entered the contest as a joke. Lisa, meanwhile, packs a one-two-three punch of stunning looks, a history of foster care, and time logged as a ”bikini dancer.” Or, as Mr. Jay singsongily put it, ”Her vulnerability intrigues me!” Finally, there’s Janet, who’s already handled Tyra’s nether regions, and more importantly, lived to tell about it.

Who are your early picks for the final four? Who will benefit most from makeover week? Was there any eliminated hopeful you wish had made the top 13? And was I alone in initially mistaking Jaslene for Janice Dickinson when they first showed her on the beach?

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Trya Banks

America's Next Top Model

Tyra Banks searches for the next great supermodel

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